Friday, August 22, 2008

For Obama, Time to get Tough is Now

To the surprise of many, Zogby's monthly presidential poll has John McCain +5 points, a 12 point swing since just last month.

The nerves of many Democrats are frayed because Sen. Barack Obama has stumbled even though the public's general view of Democrats remains more positive than it is of Republicans. There are many explanations for Obama's false start:

First, race probably plays a role.

Second, Obama took a long vacation, anticipating a lull in campaign coverage and interest during the Olympics. This was probably a strategic decision to prevent peaking too early, and to minimize the public fatigue before the hard campaigning of the fall.

But another contributing factor to his under-performance is Obama's reticence to attack his opponent. McCain's consistently hard hits have been met with tepid reactions. Too many of Obama's attacks are mere responses, allowing the McCain camp to control the narrative of the campaign and making it a referendum on Obama, rather than about the struggles of the last eight years. For example, when McCain hit Obama as a "celebrity," Obama debuted an ad pointing out that McCain is also a celebrity.

Unless Obama can get back in front of the curve and control the story, he's in real danger of losing under the most favorable conditions Democrats have seen since FDR.

For instance, McCain inaccurately stated multiple times that Iran trained al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq. Not only untrue, but demonstrative of a failure to understand a basic premise of Middle East relations-- the deep differences between factions of the Muslim faith-- something George W. Bush didn't understand until too late.

If Obama had made those mistakes, a barrage of "Is he ready to lead?" ads would have hit the air that week. Because it was McCain, those gaffes have been all but forgotten.

Up to this point, Obama's campaign can be readily contrasted with how Sen. Clinton would have run, which may cost him confidence in his own party. She'd have hit back, and hard.

It's no wonder that Obama hasn't gotten too dirty yet, staying above the fray was a precept of his campaign and a key to his success. But the time to engage is here. In choosing a VP, Obama would be wise to pick a pit bull, someone (like Joe Biden) who will criticize Republican policies openly, honestly and without any reservation.

Obama was probably smart to wait this long, but now he should make a move, and quickly, because his campaign may depend on it.

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